Manufacturing with Southern Hospitality
Ian Wright posted on August 22, 2018 |
Mixed media mural on Chestnut Street in Chattanooga. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Mixed media mural on Chestnut Street in Chattanooga, Tennessee. (Image courtesy of the author.)
For all the progress that’s been made in recent decades, the South still struggles to move past old clichés and stereotypes. “We’re in Tennessee,” explained Charles Wood, VP of economic development for the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce, “so there’s a misperception that we’re slow or behind the times. If you asked someone in San Francisco about us, they might say, ‘Chatta-who? Oh, do they wear shoes there?’ But if you haven’t been to Chattanooga in ten years, you haven’t been to Chattanooga.”

A City of Contrasts

Wood’s summation demonstrates what was the most defining feature of Chattanooga and the surrounding region from my perspective: contrast. The city boasts a population of nearly 200,000 and yet somehow manages to preserve the feeling of being in a small town. The area surrounding Chattanooga encompasses sixteen counties, including five in Georgia and two in Alabama. That could make for some intense interstate competition if not for the Greater Chattanooga Economic Partnership, a marketing effort that seeks to promote the region as a whole.

But perhaps the greatest contrast against the stereotype of Chattanooga as a place that’s behind the times is the fact that in 2009 it was the first city in America to offer Internet service at speeds of one gigabit per second via the city-owned power distribution and telecommunications company, EPB. Today, Chattanoogans enjoy access to 10-Gbps speeds thanks to EPB’s fiber optic network. Ten years ago, that might not have been important to manufacturers, but the impending arrival of Industry 4.0  shows how important data is becoming to the sector.

Machining at T.J. Snow. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Machining at T.J. Snow. (Image courtesy of the author.)
This unique combination of attributes—modern infrastructure, economic incentives and good old Southern hospitality—explains yet another aspect of Chattanooga’s juxtaposition: the combination of small start-up businesses and decades’ old multinationals. The former group includes companies working in such diverse fields as construction, medicine and material handling, while the latter is made up of household names (Volkswagen) and leaders in niche markets (Fillauer).

Engineering.com had the opportunity to visit a number of established business and up-and-coming start-ups in Chattanooga to learn more about what makes this region special.

Scenic City Manufacturing

The three companies representing the major manufacturers on this trip were Fillauer, T.J. Snow Co., Inc. and Volkswagen. Fillauer makes prosthetics and orthotics, along with some of the manufacturing equipment for those applications, such as ovens, carvers and vacuum units. T.J. Snow specializes in resistance welding machinery, supplies and services. It’s probably safe to assume that you’re already familiar with Volkswagen.

Prosthetics in The Hook Room at Fillauer, which manufactures the majority of prosthetic hooks on the market today. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Prosthetics in The Hook Room at Fillauer, which manufactures the majority of prosthetic hooks on the market today. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Fillauer and T.J. Snow were both born and raised locally. Although Fillauer Companies, Inc. has locations in Salt Lake City, UT, Weaverville, NC and Sollentuna, Sweden, it started in Chattanooga, and its headquarters are still there today. The two companies are also both family-owned: T.J. Snow was founded by current CEO Tom Snow’s father in 1963, and Fillauer was founded by CEO K. Michael Fillauer’s great grandfather—originally as a pharmacy—in 1914.

Both CEOs have seen their fair share of change in their respective industries, but they agreed on the overall benefits of manufacturing in Chattanooga. “Chattanooga is a great city for manufacturing,” Fillauer said. “It’s a manufacturing town and we’re proud to be a part of that.”

Snow agreed: “We’re ideally located—although by accident—to serve the automotive industry in the Southeast,” he said. “It’s been fun for us to see a lot of our customers move out of Michigan and Ohio and locate in the South East because of all the automotive manufacturing going on here.”

The Volkswagen Chattanooga plant. (Image courtesy of Volkswagen.)
The Volkswagen Chattanooga plant. (Image courtesy of Volkswagen.)
Nicole Koesling, SVP of human resources at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga operation echoed Snow’s sentiment. “You have a lot of logistics here, so the infrastructure is huge,” she said. “In Germany, we deliver and transport most things via rail. You are not so used to that in the US, but there is a rail here, so we use that a lot. We’re really in the center of everything, so we can reach the ports on the East Coast and the Gulf very easily.”

Gig City Start-Ups

All of the start ups I visited were operating out of an incubator at the Hamilton County Business Development Center. Alexis Willis, director of small business and entrepreneurship for the Chattanooga Area Chamber, explained what makes this facility unique. “We're a unique facility because we're mixed use, meaning we have offices and manufacturing under the same roof,” she said “We have 127,000 square feet of space, which makes us the third largest incubator in the country and the largest in Tennessee. We have companies that are 3D printing walls, companies that make hot sauce, graphic designers, massage therapists and engineers.”

The incubator gave Branch Technology enough space for four KUKA robots, but the company will soon be moving to a 40,000-sqft facility with enough space for 40 robots. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The incubator gave Branch Technology enough space for four KUKA robots, but the company will soon be moving to a 40,000-sqft facility with enough space for 40 robots. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Among the start-ups I visited were Branch Technology, Collider, CPRWrap and E&G Associates. We’ve covered Branch Technologies on engineering.com before, when they created the largest free-standing 3D-printed structure. Collider is also working in additive manufacturing, but on very different applications; right now, they’re 3D printing molds for molds (no, that’s not a misprint) using a proprietary resin that can be dissolved in water. CPRWrap is based on an invention that seems simultaneously brilliant and obvious as soon as you hear it: a plastic template that’s applied to a person’s chest and provides simple, clear instructions for performing CPR. E&G Associates specializes in powder materials and particle processing, which means they’ve worked on everything from coffee storage for Folgers to 3D printing explosives for the US Navy.
CPRWrap aims to enable anyone to perform CPR in an emergency. (Image courtesy of the author.)
CPRWrap aims to enable anyone to perform CPR in an emergency. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Like the larger companies, the start-ups were emphatic about the benefits of working in the Chattanooga region. “Working in Chattanooga is great,” said David Fuehrer, director of sales and new business development at Branch Technology. “Most of our staff are from other areas and have moved here because they love the area. It’s a great town if you’re starting a family, and the support for start-ups is bar none.”

Felicia Jackson, CEO of CPRWrap, focused on the local resources for start-up companies. “What’s so great about Chattanooga is that we have a wonderful entrepreneur network of companies that want to help us scale,” she said. “I first started with SCORE Chattanooga, then LAUNCH Chattanooga, CO.LAB and now being at the incubator has been wonderful for my company. They took a medical person, someone with no business acumen, and turned her into the CEO you see before you today.”

Choo-Choo Chattanooga Manufacturing

Poster for the American Lava Corporation factory with sample ceramic parts. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Poster for the American Lava Corporation factory with sample ceramic parts. (Image courtesy of the author.)
The site of the incubator highlights the close connection between start-ups and manufacturers in Chattanooga.

The land was originally purchased in 1936 by American Lava Corporation, which was established in 1902 by Paul John Kruesi. The factory produced more than 25,000 unique ceramic parts, supplying industries ranging from electronics to spray nozzles to extrusion dies. American Lava was acquired by 3M in 1953, and the latter company eventually gave the building and property to the Hamilton County government in the early 1980s after discontinuing its advanced electronics manufacturing.

Sample parts made from a variety of materials with Collider's 3D printing process. (Image courtesy of the author.)
Today, it’s home to more than 50 start-up companies, each looking to make their mark on the Chattanooga region and beyond. Given the amount of support they’re getting, their odds of success are looking pretty good. Stay tuned for more in-depth coverage of these companies.

For more local manufacturing stories, check out New Hampshire – The Next Medical Manufacturing Hub? and A David-and-Goliath Story from The Green Mountain State.

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